We've talked about meeting the parents, but for some couples, there's another, equally important hurdle: meeting the kids. Below, some tips on making your first meeting with your partner's offspring as stress-free as possible.
I talked to Cherie Burns, author of Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked, who advocates finding out a bit about the kids' interests beforehand, just like you might with any kid you're about to meet. She also suggests you talk to your partner about the kids' relationship with him or her, and with their other parent, so you know beforehand if there are any touchy subjects or issues there. On the flip side, Christie Hartman, author of Dating The Divorced Man, says the kids should know something about you too: "Your partner should talk to the kids about you before any meetings. They should be prepared, rather than surprised."
That's Burns's advice — she says that early on, it's wise not to "burden kids with the idea that this is a special relationship." So while it's a good idea for the kids to know they're meeting you, they don't have to think of you as A Very, Very Important New Person In Mommy/Daddy's Life — yet. Says S, whose partner has children and who prefers to remain anonymous,
For me, and my partner, it was important that I was introduced as their Dad's friend. We both thought this was the best course of action because you don't know how things will turn out early in the relationship and, since I was just a friend, there was no serious pressure for the kids to "accept" me.
Burns advises that "the length of time that you're with [your partner's kids] should be moderated and should increase gradually." You don't want to magnify potential tension by dragging the first meeting on too long. So a weekend getaway isn't the best option — try lunch instead.
Says Burns, "I don't think it goes well when stepmothers try to move right away into the mommy role." You may not be their stepmom (or dad) yet, but you still want to remember not to pressure kids into loving you. Burns advises, "don't put the children in a position of having to respond positively when it may not be a positive experience." Kids might have mixed feelings about meeting you, and some kids are shy about meeting adults, period. So while you obviously want the kids to like you, you may have to wait on that a bit. Explains Hartman, "All kids are different — some are shy and take a while to warm up to you, others aren't. Give them time to get used to you." She adds,
Don't try to "win" a kid's affection with gifts or trying to hard to make them happy. Give them space to warm up.
Resist the temptation to be the Coolest Step-Parent Ever, and recognize that the kids need time to build a relationship with you.
Hartman acknowledges that the kids might misbehave when they meet you. However, she says, "Don't take it personally — these kids are dealing with their own fears and unmet needs." They're in a stressful situation, and if one of them spits gum in your hair, it doesn't mean you're a bad person. Burns adds that if kids act up, "you really have to be cool, and you really have to be the adult." Don't get mad, and don't get drawn into petty squabbling. And don't discipline the kids yourself. Says Hartman,
The parent should handle any ill behavior. If he doesn't, it's a sign he's got "problem" kids and doesn't know how to handle them. Then, it's time to get out.
Says S, "In a perfect world, the parents get along splendidly, the kids are very polite and well adjusted, and there is no drama for miles around. In reality, i think you need to kind of safeguard yourself and the kids to keep things running smoothly." One way to safeguard yourself: don't set your expectations too high. Remember that this is just one meeting and — if the relationship continues — there will be many more. Says Burns, "don't inflate the importance of any single event." Instead, "have faith in the long term." Just because you're scraping Trident out of your bangs this time around doesn't mean it'll happen every time. So chill out and let things evolve. S has experienced this firsthand: "We took it slow and when my relationship with my partner turned into a long term one, so did my relationship with his kids."